January 26, 2014 9:04 pm

JACK Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London – review

A recital from the cutting edge that repaid a sense of adventure

Perhaps we are approaching a changing of the guard. The two leading string quartets specialising in contemporary music – the Kronos Quartet and the Arditti Quartet – are both at the point of celebrating their 40th anniversaries, the Kronos in 2013 and the Arditti later this year, so it is good to see a young challenger establishing its place.

Over the past few years the JACK Quartet has been staking out the new music territory in no uncertain fashion. The four members of the quartet, based in New York, studied with both the Kronos and Arditti, and on their tours outside the US have already forged a relationship with Wigmore Hall that has led to a live recording there of Cage, Xenakis and Ligeti.

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The programme for this recital, including three works new to London audiences, was more cutting-edge. The premiere of Christopher Trapani’s brief, but concentrated Visions and Revisions, a Wigmore co-commission, exploded the traditional idea of music for string quartet, taking its inspiration from Bob Dylan and sending fragments of harmony and melody spinning out in all directions.

In a complementary vein the two main works were both examples of “spectral music” – a coincidence, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra had just given a concert of “spectral” pieces the night before. Julian Anderson wrote his String Quartet No. 1, “Light Music”, in 1984-5, when he was 17. It was deemed unplayable at the time, but its glinting timbres, filtering sound like light through a prism, sounded very effective here. Good that Anderson could conceive a piece in the “spectral” style so expertly at that age. Good, too, though, that he has found his own voice since.

Horaţiu Rădulescu’s String Quartet No. 5, “before the universe was born” (1990-5), goes further. The instruments are tuned in an unconventional way and the composer asks for new sounds at the limits of the possible – microtonal tunings, or high steely harmonics that no longer sound like string instruments at all (think the Doctor Who theme music). In the hands of the JACK Quartet its 30-minute, nonstop span never let the attention slip. Together with shorter works by Ruth Crawford Seeger and Brian Ferneyhough, this was a recital that repaid a sense of adventure.


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